Pontiac's Last-Gasp Coupe is Gorgeous (but GM's Slip is Showing)

Last Updated Sep 1, 2009 5:06 PM EDT

Back in April, General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson said the company was taking "tough but necessary actions that are critical to GM's long-term viability," and that plan included cutting 21,000 jobs (a 34 percent workforce cut), reducing dealers by 42 percent (to 3,605 by the end of next year), shedding Saab, Saturn and Hummer--and "phasing out" Pontiac by the end of 2010.

I covered the demise of Oldsmobile in 2000, invoking the 1905 song "In My Merry Oldsmobile," which contained inspirational lyrics like, "Come away with me Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile, Down the road of life we'll fly, Automobubbling you and I." Automobubbling? Maybe you had to be there.

Pontiac has almost as colorful history as Oldsmobile, whose Curved Dash model was one of the first mass-produced vehicles. The division was established in 1932, replacing Oakland. It introduced the first column-mounted gearshift (1937) and the iconic (and lighted) Indian head mascot. It became known for being cheaper than Buick, and offering good V-8 performance.

Pontiac had big hits with the sexy "wide-track" models, helping yield the division's greatest decade, 1959 to 1969. Such storied executives as Bunkie Knudsen, Bob Estes, Jim Wangers and John DeLorean (who usually gets all the credit) made the sales chart jump with the 1959 Catalina, the '61 Tempest, the '64 GTO (which DeLorean does deserve credit for; it ushered in the muscle-car era), the 1967 Firebird (another huge hit) and the '69 Grand Prix.

That was the division's high-water mark. By '76, influenced by the Arab oil embargo, Pontiacs were "downsized," and in '79 outfitted with front-wheel drive. Under the title "Pontiac Excitement," there was a comeback in the 1980s with the Trans Am and its ilk. One of my favorite Pontiacs of recent years was the compact Vibe, and it's a Toyota Matrix under the skin.

And that brings me to the car I'm driving this week, the Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe. As a swan song for the division, this one has an attractive face. It's a really nice-looking car, improving on the original convertible. And you get your cake and can eat it, too, because the roof is a 31-pound t-top, and it can be removed for a view of the stars.

So Pontiac has an incredibly attractive car in the Solstice, designed by the very talented Franz von Holzhausen (now at Tesla, and the man behind the Model S). Edmunds calls it "drop-dead gorgeous." It's a relatively affordable $33,140 as tested, with decent fuel economy from the Ecotec turbo four (19/28 mpg). All good so far but, unfortunately, there are flaws.

The t-top does not store in the trunk. Instead, you have to lift the thing off (it's awkward to handle) and then put it it--where?--in the garage? That worked for me, but what if you live in an apartment building? A carry-along fabric roof is an option (it wasn't on our car) but if you don't spring for it you'll get wet when it rains.

Rear vision is seriously compromised, even with the roof panel off. And there's a complete lack of storage, not even door pockets. There are cupholders mounted behind the seat headrests. Driving the car was fun, even if the controls, including the five-speed transmission, are a bit heavy.

I'd like to see Pontiac go out on a high note. GM's got some huge financial challenges, so it's not likely to produce a bright star before it flickers out. But if people see pictures of the Solstice Coupe 50 years hence they'll still be impressed. It really is pretty. And as one of the last Pontiacs (and a very limited edition), it will probably have collector value. But even collector types will wonder where to put the t-top.

Flickr photo